Preserving the Barron

The exterior of one of Calgary’s most storied buildings is on its way to earning a historic designation protecting it from demolition.

In the Alberta Gazette — a Government of Alberta newspaper – notice was given that Minister of Culture Heather Klimchuk intends to make an order that the Barron Building on Eighth Avenue SW be designated a Provincial Historic Resource.

“The reasons for the designation are as follows: The Barron Building has heritage significance as an excellent example of early high rise architecture in Alberta and for its incorporation of both Moderne and early International styles,” stated the Gazette. “It is also significant for its role in solidifying Calgary as the de facto headquarters of Alberta’s oil industry.”

Calling the Barron Building a “rare breed,” Calgary Heritage Initiative President Cynthia Klaassen said next month’s issue of the Alberta Gazette will include the fact the historical designation refers to the exterior of the building.

“Once a building or part of a building becomes provincially designated, it means any alterations or any updates to it must follow the Canada Standards and Guidelines for historic preservation and it also means it is protected from demolition,” she explained. “Now, as I pointed out, that only refers to the exterior of the building which would be the facade but it also means that the canopy is protected. We know in the past there were a few demolition permits requested to remove the canopy above the sidewalk, this designation means that the canopy will also be protected.”

Constructed between 1949 and 1951 for $1.25 million, the Barron Building was the project of J.B. Barron, a law graduate. The building was listed on the Heritage Canada Foundation 2012 Most Endangered List and is also home to The Uptown Theatre.

The now defunct Uptown was at one time, one of Calgary’s most popular theatres. In November 2011, the owner shut off water services to the building after the pipes burst. Without water and heating, The Uptown, at that point the buildings only tenant, ceased operations. While the Alberta Government designation will protect the exterior of the Barron from demolition, it doesn’t extend to the building’s interior including the theatre.

“We would no longer have the Uptown Theatre and a lot of that lobby inside which has some fabulous terraso flooring on it,” said Klaassen.

“In my opinion architecture really needs to be looked at as a whole, so it’s not just what the outside of the building looks like but it’s the expectation that the exterior creates when you’re looking at a building,” she explained. “And then, when you move inside to the interior, spaces are as much about the integrity of a particular design and of a particular aesthetic as the exterior.

“So in this case we know Barron was primarily an impresario — a theatre guy — and the buildings obviously named after him, so by actually removing the theatre… you’re destroying the integrity of the building and really destroying a piece of the story.”

One way of preserving that story would be to repurpose the theatre. Klaassen mentioned the Runnymede Theatre in Toronto. Built in 1927, the theatre was repurposed as a Chapters bookstore in the late ‘90s.

“In architecture school, in engineering school there’s not enough creative thought given to ‘What do you do with an existing building?’” Klaassen said. “Do you renovate and restore something that keeps the spirit of the original but also moves it on into future centuries and ensures that it has ongoing use?”

Of the Barron’s 11 floors, the Uptown takes up the first two floors. The third to tenth floors are comprised of office space and the 11th was Barron’s apartment. The building, with its prime downtown location could be very attractive to prospective tenants.

In a First Quarter 2014 report from Barclay Street, downtown office vacancy in Calgary is at seven percent, a 0.58 per cent increase in space compared to the fourth quarter of 2013. The report found minimal increases in AA and A vacancies with 0.5 and 1.26 per cent increases in vacancy respectively while there were decreases in B and C vacancies.

The report stated Calgary currently has 40 million sq. ft. of office inventory with another 4.5 million sq. ft. under construction, 800,000 sq. ft. awaiting development permits and three million sq. ft. proposed.

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